Coconut confusion reveals consumer conundrum

coconut oil
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Coconut oil production may be more damaging to the environment than palm oil, researchers say.

The issue of tropical forests being cut down for production is widely known, but the new study says threatens more species per ton produced than palm or other vegetable oils.

The researchers use this example to highlight the difficulties of "conscientious consumption".

They say consumers lack objective guidance on the environmental impacts of crop production, undermining their ability to make informed decisions.

"The outcome of our study came as a surprise," said lead author Erik Meijaard, of Borneo Futures in Brunei Darussalam.

"Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment.

"As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut."

Co-author Dr. Jesse F. Abrams, of the Global Systems Institute and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, both at the University of Exeter, added: "Consumers, especially those striving to be more responsible in their consumption, rely heavily on information that they receive from the media, which is often supplied by those with vested interests.

Erik Meijaard talks about the research. Credit: Erik Meijaard

"When making decisions about what we buy, we need to be aware of our cultural biases and examine the problem from a lens that is not only based on Western perspectives to avoid dangerous double standards."

According to the study, production of coconut oil affects 20 (including plants and animals) per million tons of oil produced. This is higher than other oil-producing crops, such as palm (3.8 species per million tons), olive (4.1) and soybean (1.3).

The study shows that the main reason for the high number of species affected by coconut is that the crop is mostly grown on tropical islands with rich diversity and many unique species.

Impact on threatened species is usually measured by the number of species affected per square hectare of land used—and by this measure palm's impact is worse than coconut.

Coconut cultivation is thought to have contributed to the extinction of a number of island , including the Marianne white-eye in the Seychelles and the Solomon Islands' Ontong Java flying fox.

  • Coconut confusion reveals consumer conundrum
    Oil levels in bottles represent the number of species threatened by each oil crop per million tons of oil produced. Credit: University of Exeter
  • Coconut confusion reveals consumer conundrum
    The Sangihe Tarsier is threatened by deforestation and clearing of ground vegetation for coconut production. Credit: Stenly Pontolawokang

Species not yet extinct but threatened by coconut production include the Balabac mouse-deer, which lives on three Philippine islands, and the Sangihe tarsier, a primate living on the Indonesian island of Sangihe.

The authors, however, emphasize that the objective of the study is not to add to the growing list of products that consumers should avoid.

Indeed, they note that olives and other crops raise also raise concerns.

Co-author Professor Douglas Sheil, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, said: "Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts.

"We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices."

The researchers argue for new, transparent information to help .

"Informed consumer choices require measures and standards that are equally applicable to producers in Borneo, Belgium and Barbados," they write.

"While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not."

Explore further

Palm trees most abundant in American rainforests

More information: Erik Meijaard et al, Coconut oil, conservation and the conscientious consumer, Current Biology (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.05.059
Journal information: Current Biology

Citation: Coconut confusion reveals consumer conundrum (2020, July 6) retrieved 7 August 2020 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments